Sunday, 29 November 2009

Air China B738

From time to time we read in the mainstream media that a plane had to unexpectedly land because of smoke in the cockpit. Or because of an engine shut down in flight. Or because of a medical emergency. Whoever relies on information provided by the mainstream media will think such occurrences to be exceptions. While statistically that may well be so, reading The Aviation Herald (, that reports on incidents and news in aviation, will however give you quite another impression. In addition, you will also find quite peculiar stories such as the one posted on Friday, 27 November 2009, under the heading "Incident: Air China B738 over China on Nov 24th 2009, money disappeared". Here it is:

An Air China Boeing 737-800, flight CA-1103 from Beijing to Hohhot (China), was enroute about 30 minutes into the flight, when two police officer in plain clothes noticed a passenger eyeing other passenger's luggage. The passenger stood up, walked to some luggage and returned to his seat about one minute later. The airplane continued to Hohhot for a safe landing.

The police officers asked all passenger to look after their luggage and check, whether the contents were complete. One passenger stepped forward stating, that money were missing out of his backpack stored in the overhead luggage compartment.

The police officers therefore arrested the passenger they had noticed earlier during the flight. The man tried to mislead police by presenting two false identities to them. Police assumes, that the man had committed more thefts on previous flights. The two police officers in plain clothes had been dispatched to stop frequent thefts, that had been reported in the recent weeks.

And these are the comments by readers:

Wow, how many police departments would bother to send anyone, let alone 2 officers, on a flight to conduct surveillance for theft! Good one.

I love police action and when they take down the bad scum of the world!

Air China seems to have had some bad pr around this lately. I wasn't there, but this looks a little staged to me.

Seems for unlikely that they would happen to be on the particular flight this was happening on. Unless the other lefts were on this particular flight or route then I also think it was staged. The Chinese are notorious for propaganda stunts such as this.

ha. its funny how no one trusts any news out of china. i wonder how aware of that their government is.
If it is true it's great to hear. but does sound quite unbelievable to me.

Given the population of China, it would seem plausible that they have the manpower to place officers on all flights. I'm still in awe of the cast size for the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Who are we?

Peoples and nations are attempting the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural ethnic groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.
Samuel P. Huntington: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Skis in the desert

This is how the British army was sent to war in Iraq while Tony Blair and friends stayed in England:

Operations were so under-resourced that some troops went into action with only five bullets each. Others had to deploy to war on civilian airlines, taking their equipment as hand luggage. Some troops had weapons confiscated by airport security.

Commanders reported that the Army’s main radio system “tended to drop out at around noon each day because of the heat”. One described the supply chain as “absolutely appalling”, saying: “I know for a fact that there was one container full of skis in the desert.”

From: 'Iraq report: Secret papers reveal blunders and concealment', The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2009.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Brazil in the media

"On October 22nd Geyse Arruda was escorted from the campus of Bandeirante University, a private college in a São Paulo suburb, her thighs shrouded by a lab coat, watched by several hundred jeering fellow students. Her offence? Wearing a dress so short as to constitute 'a flagrant lack of respect for ethical principles, academic dignity and morality'. How could this happen in the land of topless carnival dancers and buttocks swaying on the beach?" asked The Economist on 12 November 2009 and explained: "Tolerance coexists uneasily with prudishness. Brazilians are a religious people. Many of the churches frown on carnival as a time of loose behaviour and marriage-breaking, a fight that the Catholic church has waged for centuries."

Are Brazilians really a religious people? Well, how would one measure that? And, what about the claim that tolerance coexists uneasily with prudishness? That actually sounds more like The Economist were describing the people of its homebase, the English ...

The problem with this article however is another one. The reporter, like most reporters, has very probably not been present when the incident he or she wrote about occurred. In other words, what we got to read about this case was based on hearsay and what we got to see was based on video-images - and these are often even less reliable than hearsay for pictures, contrary to popular belief, do not provide evidence.

But hey, were there really several hundred fellow students jeering? And if so, why? And how come that a camera recorded it? Could this have been an orchestrated event by, for example, a small group of conservative zealots to get media attention?

It is simply absurd to use this totally insignificant incidence - everybody who has ever set foot on Brazilian soil knows that this is totally atypical for this country - as a pretext for arguing that in Brazil "tolerance exists uneasily with prudishness". There is zero basis for such a claim. And this means that one really shouldn't read The Economist when trying to understand Brazil.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Hans Albrecht Moser

Es liegt schon einige Zeit zurück, dass ich "Vineta" von Hans Albrecht Moser gelesen habe. Vor vier Jahren war das, in Istanbul. Letzthin habe ich einige der Stellen wieder gelesen, die ich mir damals angestrichen hatte. Hier sind einige von ihnen:

Die Welt ist ein Betätigungsfeld und weiter nichts.

... den guten Geschmack: ich lernte ihn als selbständigen, vom Moralischen unabhängigen Wert erkennen.

Es liegt in der Natur des Glaubens, die Tatsachen in seinen Sinn umzufälschen, und der Glaube, richtig zu erkennen, geht schliesslich jeder Erkenntnis voraus.

Mit unseren Welterklärungen wird uns mehr genommen als gegeben. Sie erklären nichts, setzen nur an die Stelle des Geheimnisses eine Gewohnheit zu denken.

Der Bildungsstoff, der uns angeboten wird, wird immer grösser, um so strenger müssen wir also auswählen, was davon für uns wirklich bestimmt ist.

Ist es nicht ein verhängnisvoller Irrtum zu glauben, wir könnten unser Ziel erreichen und damit unsern Sinn erfüllen, indem wir wissentlich leben, wie wir nicht leben sollten?

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Freeing oneself up

Years ago, in Bangkok, Thailand, I used to spend the first Sunday afternoon of the month at the nearby headquarters of the World Fellowship of Buddhists where meditation practice was taught in English by monks from Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Forest Monastery in Northeast Thailand. I particularly remember a speech by Ajahn Sumedho, an American monk, who ended it by saying: Should you have come to the conclusion that what I have been telling you sounds interesting to you then you most probably have got me completely wrong. Because a lot of things are interesting. But that is not the point. 

What you need to ask yourself is whether what I have been telling you is helpful for you. To look for what is helpful is indeed good advice. Helpful for me is for example this insight by Richard Rorty (in Cultural Otherness): "… the emphasis falls less on knowing than on imagining, more on freeing oneself up than on getting something right."

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A cultural faux pas

During a trip to Senegal, Maya Angelou called Samia, a friend she had made in Paris several years before, and was invited over for dinner. Passing a room where people apparently clung to the wall to avoid standing on the rug, Angelou became incensed. "I had known a woman in Egypt who would not allow her servants to walk on her rugs, saying that only she, her family and friends were going to wear out her expensive carpets. Samia plummeted in my estimation."

Keen to challenge her host's hauteur, she walked back and forth across the carpet. "The guests who were bunched up on the sidelines smiled at me weakly." Soon afterwards, servants came, rolled up the rug, took it away and brought in a fresh one. Samia then came in and announced that they would be serving one of Senegal's most popular dishes in honour of Angelou: "Yassah, for our sister from America… Shall we sit?" And as the guests went to the floor where glasses, plates, cutlery and napkins were laid out on the carpet, Angelou realised the full extent of her faux pas and was "on fire with shame".

"Clever and so proper Maya Angelou, I had walked up and down over the tablecloth… In an unfamiliar culture, it is wise to offer no innovations, no suggestions, or lessons. The epitome of sophistication is utter simplicity."
From The Guardian, 14 November 2009

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A white lie

A white lie is not a lie at all. It is where you tell the truth but you do not tell all of the truth. This means that everything you say is a white lie because when someone says, for example, "What do you want to do today?" you say, "I want to do painting with Mrs. Peters," but you don't say, "I want to have my lunch and I want to go to the toilet and I want to go home after school and I want to play with Toby and I want to have my supper and I want to play on my computer and I want to go to bed."
Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Friday, 13 November 2009

Uma pessoa feliz

Uma pessoa é feliz quando faz o que lhe dá prazer e quando vive uma relação de amor-amizade com alguém. Essa definição, que considero verdadeira, nunca se realiza. A gente não está nunca fazendo só o que gosta. A vida nos obriga a fazer muitas coisas desagradáveis, a engolir sapos. Eu mesmo tenho, em meu estômago, vários sapos vivos, não digeridos, que continuam a mexer e a coaxar. Além disso, essa relação de amor-amizade só acontece em momentos ou períodos curtos. Ela é logo interrompida por uma série de fatores indesejáveis que nos tornam intolerantes, irritadiços, rabugentos, distantes. Essa transformação aparece na mudança da música da fala.
Rubem Alves: Coisas da Alma

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Watching the world change

Like probably quite some others, I feel somewhat overfed when it comes to 9/11. So why then would I read yet another text about it? Well, I'm interested in photographs, and in photojournalism, and especially in the stories behind the photographs, and when I came across reviews of David Friend's "Watching the World Change" I became curious and remained so page after page of this truly fascinating work.

The author, David Friend, formerly Life's director of photography, is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development. Moreover, he is a good writer, a tireless journalist, and, very probably, a workaholic - the research alone that went into this book is immense and impressive.

Remember the image of George W. Bush at Ground Zero? The one where "...he stood in a windbreaker on the smoking heap at Ground Zero, flag pin on his lapel and bullhorn in his mitt. He embraced Bob Beckwith, a sixty-nine-year old firefighter from Queens ..."? One of Bush's longtime media advisors opined that this image "will be the most lasting and iconic image of {his} presidency", the editor in chief of the New York Daily News believed this scene to be unscripted, a strategist, who worked on John Kerry's campaign, thought it calculated, and Luc Sante, the culture critic and photo historian, also believed it to be scripted for "with Bush you never get a moment that is not stage-managed."

"Compelling ... Surely the most original treatment so far of the cultural impact of the day", Frank Rich of The New York Times is quoted on the back cover and, yes, that is most probably true, but, what's more, this is absolutely singular journalism (well-told, detailed, and with a keen sense for narrative flow) that not only demonstrates how we - by taking, looking at, distributing, and sharing pictures - are trying to give significance to what surrounds us but also proves that it is not the (dramatically structured and enhanced) story that makes good journalism but the accurate and sympathetic rendering of how people deal with what happens.

9/11 was probably the most photographed event of our time. This is one of the impressions that you get when spending time with this book. I know, we live in a world of pictures, yet it would have never occurred to me that so many people took pictures - videos and stills - on that day. "A French documentary filmmaker, a Czech immigrant, and a German artist - New Yorkers all - each happened to have cameras rolling and focused on the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Moments later, artist Lawrence Heller, who had heard the first jet slam into Tower One (the north tower), picked up his digital video camera ... People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on the screen." And there was, for example, Patricia McDonough, a professional photographer, who, after taking quite some pics that would later appear in Esquire and other magazines, thought that photography "suddenly seemed superfluous", loaded her bike bag with disposable gloves and water bottles - "I had a lot of Red Cross training, CPR classes, I have preternatural calm in disasters" - and rushed to help.

"Astoundingly", Friend comments, "dozens of photographers continued to shoot even as they sensed that their own lives were at risk - when clouds of debris, from the falling towers, mushroomed up and down the streets." But what did people compel to take photographs in such a situation? Sure, answers may vary but quite some people probably "had to photograph it and then look at it in order to validate that it actually happened", as curator and writer Michael Shulan opines. Yet despite the many pictures that were shot on 9/11 and the following days (by TV-cameras, tourists, workers, passersby), it was by no means easy for professional photographers to go about their work. Christopher Morris, for instance, says: "I got on the scene, got past the barricades, and was immediately seized upon by the police. It was impossible to shoot. Everybody hated photographers. We were like pariahs."

One of the reasons that so many pictures were taken on that day is that it was possible: 50% of Americans live in homes with a digital camera; up to 2006, 50 million working cell phones in the US had cameras in them, I learned. David Friend thinks that the week of 9/11 was the beginning of the digital age, part of which is digital newsgathering. In the words of Nigel Pritchard of CNN: "You were no longer tied to a piece of cable and a satellite truck. We could go anywhere and broadcast with a battery pack." Modern technology (digital cameras, phone lines, fiber-optic cables, the internet, satellites) has made it possible that "in a matter of minutes, everyone with a monitor, almost anywhere in the world, was able to access similar footage shot only moments before", as Friend explains.

In the days following 9/11, there were hardly any pictures published (in the US) that showed body parts, blood covered survivors or people jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center. This self-censorship, as Friend elaborates, might have occurred because "editors, to some degree, might have felt protective of their own. beholden to people they considered members of nothing less than an extended family - vast, grieving, and interconnected (...) In short, they just couldn't bear to have anyone see them this way." Another reason surely was, as Time's director of photography, Michele Stephenson, says, that "there was not a lot left of them."

But what about photos of jumpers, why didn't we get to see these? Joe Scurto, for instance, saw "at least a hundred people jumping. The were coming down like rain." Well, there is one that has come to be known as The Falling Man, taken by veteran Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; "the most famous picture nobody's ever seen", as Drew says. As Friend sees it: "Nowadays ... news organizations tend to play it safe, having been subsumed by media conglomerates that give less credence to exposing harsh realities than to turning a profit, entertaining mass audiences, and satisfying skittish advertisers."

There are also bizarre things to be learnt from this great book, for instance, that the Stars and Stripes flag that the firemen raised at Ground Zero has disappeared. Or the story of an ad agency copywriter and a photographer who were flipping through Time magazine (the cover photo was shot by the photographer), when a man came running towards them, grabbed the magazine and, landing on a double-page spread, announced that these were his images. And, when the ad guy pointed out that his friend had shot the cover, said: "Ahh, you're the one who beat me out of the cover."

Not bizarre at all, but very interesting (and wonderfully instructive) I've found this:
After the attacks on the Twin Towers, all commercial flights across American airspace had been immediately suspended. All of a sudden, the air was clear of contrails (thin stripes of condensation the many jets that cross the continent leave behind) and visual and meterological data produced over the three days the planes were grounded indicated "that North America's temperature swing (the range between the average daytime high and the average nighttime low) widened by an appreciable three to five degrees Fahrenheit ... this suggested ... that contrails, over the years, have tended to tamp down temperatures (a phenomenon called global dimming), possibly hiding what could be even more severe ramifications of global warming."

Above all, this tome impressively demonstrates what it means to live in a world dominated by pictures. Friend writes: "Most of us hardly realize how pictures serve as a nourishing undergrowth in the recesses of our lives. The weather forecast that helped me choose what I would wear today was created by meteorologists interpreting sequences of still photographs. The security cameras in my office building, my local bank, the various public spaces I traverse each day, are recording me in a steady stream of surveillance shots. My computer stores images and exchanges them with other electronic devices. My cellular picture phone ..."

Finally, taking pictures and looking at pictures is personal. And thankfully, this is a personal book. Not in the sense that David Friend is pouring out his soul but in the sense that he tells you how he goes about his work: "I phoned a friend in London to see how he was coping, to offer support ... On September 11, my friend, an executive at eSpeed [a Cantor subsidiary in London] hand been on a conference call with his counterparts on the 103rd floor of Tower One. Over the course of his call, he had listened to what he remembers as the 'turmoil over the squawk box,' as colleagues spoke about some sort of explosion. Later came sounds that he now claims are too nightmarish to describe."

In the same vein he writes about how his then thirteen-year-old daughter Molly reacted to the news that John Doherty, the father of her friend Maureen, had not returned from the World Trade Center: "Over the week that followed, Molly would periodically go to the dining room sideboard, open the left-hand drawer, and take out a framed photo she kept there of nineteen sixth-grade girls from the Ursuline School, including Maureen and Molly, posing in their finest dresses." And about how he himself attempted to come to grips with post 9/11 reality: "I stared at the framed photo beside the prayer book. It showed my sister, Janet, brown eyes twinkling, her young life gone in a single stroke, in a car crash, in 1997. Yet I felt through the photograph that her absence was somehow a presence, and that she must be busy. This nurse, who used to work on a children's bone marrow yard in Seattle, would have been swamped that week. Watching her smile on the nightstand, I thought Janet must be ministering and offering guidance and compassion, now that heaven was packed."

David Friend
Watching the World Change
The Stories Behind The Images of 9/11
Picador, New York

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Berlin Wall

One rarely happens to be where world news, and sometimes history, is made. Yet, in such a situation I found myself twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down. I was sitting with a friend in a pizzeria when our waiter, an Italian, all of a sudden and totally excited, shouted: "Mauer auf, Mauer auf" — "Wall open, wall open." Being Swiss, and therefore not given to a spontaneous overflow of feelings, I calmly explained to my German friend that such a thing was not possible and that we should better stay and finish our meal. Only later, when the place was deserted and we were the only ones left, did my friend and I decide that maybe the waiter, despite being Italian and thus, most likely, given to wild exaggerations, might have been right and the wall had indeed been opened.

When we eventually arrived at one of the border crossings, it was four o'clock in the morning and, except for an occasional Easterner heading across, not much was going on anymore. In the nearby bars, however, emotions were running high — I remember men trembling and shaking, and with tears in their eyes. Impossible, not to be moved. The next day, the Easterners queued to get their 100 German mark "welcome money," they queued for bananas — quite obviously a rarity in the East — and the queued to get into the sex shops.

Such was, roughly, my experience of the wall coming down. I did, however, see one more wall coming down: this time on television. It was recorded live and, therefore, difficult to control — a young man from East-Berlin, strolling down the Kurfürstendamm in the Western part of town, was asked how he liked being in the free world? "It's the same as in the East," he replied, "West-German marks will buy you everything." Watching it happen on television, I had a feeling of excitement and fun, like being at a really good party. It certainly was very different from what I had felt the night before — then it had seemed somewhat incomprehensibly unreal whereas now, on television, I had the strange sensation that this was more real than what I myself had experienced.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

On things changing

Mr. Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did.
Then he asked if I didn't like things changing. And I said I wouldn't mind things changing if I became an astronaut, for example, which is one of the biggest changes you can imagine, apart from becoming a girl or dying.
He asked whether I wanted to become an astronaut and I said I did.
He said that it was very difficult to become an astronaut. I said that I knew. You had to become an officer in the airforce and you had to take lots of orders and be prepared to kill other human beings, and I couldn't take orders. Also I didn't have 20/20 vision, which you needed to be a pilot. But I said that you could still want something that is very unlikely to happen.
Mark Haddon: The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Addiction is a decision

I sit and I listen. I sit and I think. I don't ask any questions and I don't say a word. I would like to stand up and scream bullshit this is all fucking bullshit, but I don't do it. I don't believe that addiction is a disease. Cancer is a disease. It takes over the body and destroys it. Alzheimer's is a disease. It takes over the body and the mind and it ruins them. Parkinson's is a disease. It takes over the body and the mind and makes them shake and it wrecks them. Addiction is not a disease. Not even close. Diseases are destructive Medical conditions that human beings do not control. They do not choose when to have them, they do not choose when to get rid of them. They do not choose the type of the disease they would like or in what form it is delivered, they do not choose how much of it they would like or at what time they would like it. A disease is a Medical condition that must be dealt with using Medical technology. It cannot be dealt with using a Group or a set of Steps. It cannot be dealt by talking about it. It cannot be dealt with by having Family Members attend three-day seminars about it or by reading books with blue covers or saying prayers about serenity.
Although genetics and a genetic link may be undeniable, everything about us is genetic, and everything about our physical selves is predetermined by a genetic link. If an individual is fat but wants to be thin, it is not a genetic disease. If someone is stupid, but wants to be smart, it is not a genetic disease. If a drunk is a drunk, but doesn't want to be a drunk anymore, it is not a genetic disease. Addiction is a decision. An individual wants something, whatever that something is, and makes a decision to get it. Once they have it, they make a decision to take it. If they take it too often, that process of decision making gets out of control, and if it gets too far out of control, it becomes an addiction. At that point the decision is a difficult one to make, but it is still a decision. Do I or don't I? Am I going to take or am I not going to take? Am I going to be a pathetic dumbshit Addict and continue to waste my life or am I going to say no and try to stay sober and be a decent Person. It is a decision. Each and every time. A decision. String enough of these decisions together and you set a course and you set a standard of living. Addict or human. Genetics do not make that call. They are just an excuse. They allow People to say it wasn't my fault I am genetically predisposed. It wasn't my fault I was preprogrammed from day one. It wasn't my fault I didn't have any say in the matter. Bullshit. Fuck that bullshit. There is always a decision. Take responsibility for it. Addict or human. It's a fucking decision. Each and every time.
James Frey: A Million Little Pieces

This is the way I see it: Addiction is both, a decision and a disease. Sure enough: to drink or not to drink is a decision. Yet once the alcoholic has started to drink, the alcohol takes over, and from that moment onwards the alcohol is in charge and decides: drinking has turned into a disease, whether in a medical sense or not is beside the point for the alcoholic is surely dis-eased. What for me is important in this excerpt is the emphasis on personal responsibility - I completely share it.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Chinese View

According to Joseph Needham, the Chinese - despite all their sophistication - made little progress in science because it never occurred to them to think of nature as mechanism, as "composed" of separable parts and "obeying" logical laws. Their view of the universe was organic. It was not a game of billiards in which the balls knocked each other around in a cause-and-effect series. What were causes and effects to us were to them "correlatives" - events that arose mutually, like back and front. The "parts" of their universe were not separable, but as fully interwoven as the act of selling with the act of buying.
Alan Watts: The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Just for today

Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle my whole life problem at once.

Just for today I will be happy. This assumes to be true what Abraham Lincoln said, that "most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be."

Just for today I will adjust myself to what is, and not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I wiil take my "luck" as it comes, and fit myself to it.

Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.

Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways; I will do somebody a good turn, and not get found out; if anybody knows of it, it will not count. I will do at least two things I don't want to do - just for exercise. I will not show anyone that my feelings are hurt; they may be hurt, but today I will not show it.

Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, dress becomingly, talk low, act courteously, criticize not one bit, not find fault with anything, and not try to improve or regulate anybody but myself.

Just for today I will have a programme. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. I will save myself from two pests : hurry and indecision.

Just for today I will have a quiet half hour all by myself, and relax. During this half hour, sometime, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.

Just for today I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.